John Simpson CBE

Global witness

2 April 2014

Major political events are sometimes shaped not just by people, but the weather too — says BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson CBE.

Having spent his entire career at the BBC, which he joined straight from University of Cambridge in 1965, John Simpson is synonymous with international political journalism.

From Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev to Osama Bin Laden and Robert Mugabe, John's thoughtful, probing interviews reflect a 'Who's Who' of the most famous - and infamous - leaders of recent times. Getting the story has taken him to more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones.

"Travel and writing were both powerful influences when I was growing up," says John. "Over six years, my father, who ran away to sea at 15, travelled the world to India, Australia, the US and South America. The glamour of it all and his endless stories had a huge impact on me."

John's early BBC career saw him edit and present a foreign news radio programme based entirely on newspaper stories and phone interviews.

"I never went anywhere of course," laughs John, now 69 but still travelling up to 14 days a month, "but it was a statement of intent. And I was made a foreign correspondent in 1971 - the BBC's youngest I think, although my great friend John Humphrys likes to say it was him!"

Tiananmen Square: things might have been different

"I've been in places where the weather's been a deciding factor," adds John. He recalls how a cameraman warned him of an impending storm a week before the 1989 student demonstrations in Beijing that ultimately led to hundreds of deaths.

"I foolishly said it would head elsewhere - but then found myself in one of the most violent storms I've ever encountered. People were hurled across Tiananmen Square by the wind for 40 to 50 yards and it was completely cleared of demonstrators."

John supposes if the Chinese Army had secured the area then, the subsequent confrontation and fatalities could have been avoided.

John has also seen how heat stirs people up. "Hot temperatures are a major factor in inflaming crowds," he says. "I've seen it in Baghdad - when anger boils over faster and things inevitably turn to violence - and again in Bangladesh."

Climate change: the evidence is no coincidence

But it was a series filmed for BBC World in 1997 that convinced John that it's not just the immediate weather, but also long-term climate change that cannot be ignored.

"We travelled to every continent excluding the Arctic and Antarctic - from Latin America to China, right across Europe and the US too," says John. "'Odd' weather was occurring in virtually every place we visited - and it really made me think."

As a seasoned political reporter whose career has been built on forensic analysis of the evidence, John not surprisingly takes the rational view.

"If you look at the graph post-1900 it would have to be the most amazing coincidence for rising global temperatures not to be linked to the internal combustion engine and industrialisation. To deny climate change really is to put your head in the sand."

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